In contexts warning against false teachers, New Testament authors sometimes cite the example of Balaam.
Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he received a rebuke for his own transgression, for a mute donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet (2 Peter 2:15-16, cf. Jude 11).
This tale is found in Numbers 22-24. The children of Israel had been wandering in the wilderness, and had come to the plains of Moab. The Moabites and Midianites were trembling with fear because the people of Israel were so numerous, and had proven mighty in battle. So King Balak, with the leaders of the Moabites and Midianites, hired Balaam the prophet to curse Israel.
God warned Balaam in a dream not to go, and not to curse Israel. But King Balak upped the reward, and Balaam went. The angel of the Lord stood in Balaam’s path to destroy him, but Balaam’s donkey sensed the angel and balked, crushing Balaam’s foot. When Balaam struck the donkey, God caused it to speak to him, revealing not only the destruction he had been spared, but proving that God can put words in the mouth of any dumb creature He wants to. With this warning, God allowed Balaam to proceed, but to communicate “only the word which I tell to you” (22:35).
Three times King Balak hired Balaam to curse Israel, and three times Balaam spoke a blessing for Israel. In fact, Balaam saw very far into the future and prophesied of the ultimate victory of Israel in the coming of the Messiah (24:17-19, cf. Deuteronomy 23:3-5). King Balak was enraged and told Balaam to get lost.
But the story doesn’t end there. In the next chapter, while Israel was camped in the same location, we read the following:
The people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry against Israel. The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.” Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation and took a spear in his hand, and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked. Those who died by the plague were 24,000 (Numbers 25:1-9).
What happened here? Who came up with the idea to entice Israel? We find out later. When Israel defeated Midian, Moses instructed the people to destroy even the Midianite women, because,
These caused the sons of Israel through the counsel of Balaam to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord (Numbers 31:16).
It would seem that Balaam didn’t give up trying to earn his reward after his curses failed. If the Moabites couldn’t hope to defeat Israel in a stand-up fight, they could causes them to lose favor with God. So, Balaam counseled the Moabite women to throw a party and invite Israel. And Israel attended and got involved in their idolatry and sexual immorality, to a shameless extent.
Never in his wildest dreams could King Balak kill 24,000 Israelites in a battle. But through the evil genius Balaam, he could cause Israel to do it to themselves!
Thus, Balaam becomes a symbol of false teachers motivated by greed, who counsel God’s people to get involved in licentious behavior, and thus threaten them with God’s own judgment. Hear, for example, what Jesus says to the church at Pergamum:
I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality (Revelation 2:14).
What is the takeaway? The comment of R. Collins in Pulpit Commentary is right on: “Balaam could not harm them by his curses or magical practices, but only by taking advantage of their evil nature. So has our adversary Satan no power against us, save through our own sins.” False teachers, especially those who “indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority” (2 Peter 2:10) attempt to convince people that Jesus is less than a holy Judge, and to convince people that sexual immorality is okay, “promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption” (2:19).
When Israel finally got their hands on Balaam, they put him to death (Numbers 31:8, Joshua 13:22). Sadly, Balaam, who seemed like a true prophet when we first met him (Numbers 22:7-13) proved to be a tool of the Devil, which serves to remind us that we must very much be on the alert. All such false teachers bring destruction upon themselves, but sadly, also bring destruction upon those who follow them (2 Peter 2:1). —John Guzzetta